Fred “Curly” Neal, one of the best-known members of the Harlem Globetrotters, died Thursday at his home outside Houston. He was 77.
“We have lost one of the most genuine human beings the world has ever known,” Globetrotters general manager Jeff Munn said in a statement issued by the team. “His basketball skill was unrivaled by most, and his warm heart and huge smile brought joy to families worldwide. He always made time for his many fans and inspired millions.”
Neal was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, and played college basketball at Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte, where he earned all-Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association honors.
He joined the Globetrotters in 1963 and played for the barnstorming on-court entertainers for 22 years. He appeared in more than 6,000 games in 97 countries before retiring in 1985.
His shaved head that earned him the ironic nickname Curly, as well as his virtuoso ball-handling skills, made him one of the most recognizable members of the squad, along with longtime teammate Meadowlark Lemon.
The Globetrotters retired Neal’s No. 22 at a ceremony in Madison Square Garden in 2008.
“Being a Globetrotter, especially during that time, was as much a responsibility as it was a job,” Neal wrote for USA TODAY in 2016. “We weren’t just entertainers. I truly believe that we helped ease many of the tensions that pulled at the country. It didn’t matter if you were black, white or whatever — laughing and enjoying our games made those barriers disappear.”
Neal was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 2008. He continued to make appearances with the Globetrotters in his later years.
Funeral arrangements for Neal are pending.
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